This a question we all ask ourselves from time to time, sometimes more frequently than we should. Am I good enough to pass this exam? Good enough to compete in that festival? Play in that concert? To be a piano teacher?
Society sets targets for us which are ingrained from the moment we enter primary school. Will I make the grade? What if I get the answer wrong? From an early age we are programmed to measure ourselves and our progress against the expectations of others and unseen external forces.
As pianists we tend to spend a lot of time alone, with just the instrument and (mostly) dead composers for companions. Practising and studying alone, it is easy to start questioning our abilities: a bad practise session can leave one wondering “can I actually play the piano?” In addition to our own self-doubt, the opinions of others, in particular teachers and mentors, can have a marked effect on our self-esteem which may colour the way we approach our music making. In extreme cases, when one is subjected to very negative feedback about one’s abilities, this can lead to stress which manifests itself in both emotional and physical symptoms such as depression, tendonitis and focal dystonia. Even in less extreme instances, negative comments about our playing can affect our day-day-to relationship with the piano and lead us to question our abilities.
Learning confidence and to be trusting of one’s musical self is an important aspect of one’s development as a musician. I see this in my students, most of whom are now teenagers who are beginning to make important decisions about future study and even post-school careers. Very used to being spoonfed and “nudged” into the “right” direction by teachers and parents, they are less certain when asked to make decisions about their music. They want reassurance that they are playing in the “right” way, that they are “good enough” to pass their next grade exam. They want to know how their peers are progressing, who has passed this or that exam and with what mark. A Merit? A Distinction? They talk about others being “better” than them, when I hasten to point out that a student who is working towards Grade 7 or 8 is not “better”, simply more “advanced”. Their anxieties cause them to lose sight of what I consider to be the most important aspect of music making: communication.
I share many of my students’ anxieties; and many of my own issues stem from unhelpful comments by teachers at school and beyond, and feeling disadvantaged by the fact that I did not study music at university or conservatoire. Add to that, a long absence from the piano post-university when I was occupied with other things: career and family.
When I returned to the piano in my late 30s, I did so with a vengeance, soaking up repertoire, concerts, recordings, films and books on the subject. I even befriended a few professional pianists. And this is where the trouble started. I began to compare myself to these people, to measure my own reasonably competent efforts at the piano against these people who had the training, the mindset, and that special je ne sais quoi which set them apart from the rest of us. I wanted to attempt the same repertoire, walk across the concert platform with the same special brand of sangfroid – and play beautifully. Just like they did. I assumed these people were unassailable, that they never suffered from self-doubt, nor ever asked “am I good enough”?
Of course, there is nothing wrong with drawing inspiration from these people and the music they make. Indeed, inspiration is a wondrous resource, which drives us to explore, create and achieve. But by constantly measuring myself against the achievements of others, I found I was continually frustrated by my own progress, or lack thereof, and regularly wondered if I was indeed “good enough”.
Recently, however, I’ve reached a state of acceptance. I’ve found other ways of connecting with professional musicians, mostly obviously through this blog, and I’ve stopped wishing I could do what they do. Because I am doing what they do, in my own way – through the concert series and group for adult amateur pianists which I co-organise with a colleague. I’ve performed in concerts, organised and promoted concerts. I make and share music in a way which suits me and my capabilities, and I get a tremendous amount of pleasure from doing so.
How to feel you are good enough……
- Don’t constantly compare yourself to others
- Don’t deify the composers, professional musicians or the music
- Don’t set yourself unrealistic targets – this can lead to over-practising, stress, tension and physical injury
- Choose repertoire which you enjoy playing, not because someone said “you should learn this!”
- Don’t blindly follow the advice of teachers, colleagues or friends. Be questioning and inquisitive. One person’s method may not suit you.
- Enjoy and appreciate the positive endorsements of teachers, colleagues and friends
- Cut yourself some slack: you don’t have to practise every day, you don’t have to use Hanon exercises just because Joe Bloggs next door does.
- People are not necessarily “better”, just “more advanced”
- Remember that even top flight professional artists suffer from anxiety and stress. They are just better at dealing with it!
- Enjoy your music. Play, listen, go to concerts, share music with friends.
Further reading and resources
Beyond Stage Fright – top professional musicians and teachers talk about how they cope with performance anxiety and stress
Music From the Inside Out (Charlotte Tomlinson) Not just for professional musicians, this book is applicable to anyone who suffers from the issues explored in this article. Charlotte’s clearsighted and down-to-earth approach equips you with the tools to unlock what is holding you back.